Smart grid projects are moving swiftly across Europe to meet the mandate that 80 percent of European households have meters by 2020.

Just how many meters is that? GTM Research forecasts an additional 100 million smart meters between now and the end of 2016.

As the metering market slows down in the U.S. now that the stimulus dollars have been allocated, Europe is arguably the hottest market for the next few years (of course, one should never take an eye off of China).

But what will the digital technology mean for European customers? It’s not clear, according to Geert-Jan van der Zanden, author of GTM Research’s report, Smart Grid in Europe, 2012-2016.

He noted that residential demand response programs will not have the same appeal in Europe since the average household usage there is less than half what it is in the U.S. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t fat to cut. Many Europeans don’t even see accurate monthly bills, and offering differentiated pricing and feedback on usage could generate savings.

In the U.K., which is expected to have more than 40 million dual (gas and electric) smart meters, the government is also looking to encourage energy efficiency retrofits, which will be helped by detailed usage information. Many European utilities want to use the meters to reinvent their relationship with their customers. In Europe, just like in the U.S., few people actually have warm feelings toward their utility. 

In one instance, van der Zanden writes, “Denmark’s SEAS-NVE, for example, paid careful attention to this aspect, to the point of training installers in how to talk to customers in their homes. As a result, the utility’s complaint rates dropped significantly and customers now save an average of 16 percent on their power bills.”

The figure for Europe is good news for meter makers and their suppliers. It is also a more bullish prediction than some others have made. Research firm IHS (formerly iSupply) recently reported that global smart meter sales will grow from 20.5 million this year to 62 million by 2016. But van der Zanden noted that the addition of just France, Spain, Germany and the U.K. could easily bring the metering tally to 100 million by 2016.

Although Europe is still reeling from financial turmoil, metering plans still appear to be in place for many countries. Earlier this year, the French government announced plans for 35 million smart meters, and the U.K. has been aggressive about its metering goals. The U.K. government announced smart grid communications contracts worth up to $7.5 billion.

The U.K. is also the market to watch for consumer platforms. As Greentech Media recently noted in its hottest home area network trends of 2011, the U.K. is one of the most exciting markets in the entire world -- not just in Europe. Strong government mandates mixed with a competitive market and annual utility bills make it ripe for analytics and home energy technologies.

But first, they need meters. A successful rollout in the U.K. will only help to accelerate other European countries’ plans for smart meters in 2012 and beyond.